Kenneth Prewitt’s essay “Can Social Science Matter?” offers an intriguing vista on autonomy and accountability, especially in the context of contemporary social science. Running through his account are ways in which heightened demands for accountability have weakened the autonomy or independence of social scientists undertaking funded research. Interests outside of the social sciences, Prewitt observes, now set directions for research and its ends that differ dramatically from earlier visions of “pure science.”

It seems reasonable to examine these arguments against the backdrop of the National Science Foundation (NSF). That agency emerged, as Prewitt notes, from a vision endorsing pure science—or knowledge pursued for its own sake and not for identifiable social changes. Moreover, the organization adopted a peer-review system that placed responsibility for choosing among projects in the hands of the scientific community. That community was to have the independence to take actions likely to promote the acceleration of knowledge and hold the research community accountable for scientific progress.

“Changes in levels of autonomy or accountability can be byproducts of strides toward other ends.”

The history of the NSF, however, shows a more nuanced picture of autonomy and accountability. The experiences of the institution illustrate that changes in levels of autonomy or accountability can be byproducts of strides toward other ends, such as modifying the distribution of resources. The experiences likewise show that research autonomy and accountability do not emerge fully formed at a single time, but result from an array of forces—some of them possibly in conflict. These patterns appear for the sciences in general, not just for the social sciences, but the social sciences might have a pivotal role to play in tracing the complex forces associated with the dynamics of research autonomy and accountability.

Finding a role for the Foundation

The NSF has escaped pressures to fund research directed towards identifiable, socially relevant results, but those impulses are not of recent vintage and in fact coexisted with attempts to invent an agency dedicated to pure science. Vannevar Bush, often identified as the chief architect for what emerged as the NSF, did indeed advocate for this “pure” model of science.1Information on the beginnings of the National Science Foundation comes primarily from J. Merton England, A Patron for Pure Science
(Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, 1982).
He did so, nonetheless, recognizing the presence of an existing set of agencies determined to defend the applied areas they oversaw. The Office of Naval Research and the Atomic Energy Commission, among others, found the idea of a basic research agency less threatening than one that might encroach upon their territories. Members of Congress weighed in, too, on the framing of a civilian research agency suitable for the United States in the post–World War II era. Different visions prevailed. Some legislators wanted that agency to spawn new industries and in general raise the overall standard of living. Others dissented, preferring instead an agency unlikely to intervene in the making of public policy.

Generally, scientists—particularly those in universities—favored the non-interventionist approach, one that would leave the agenda of the organization in their hands, yet this proved a divided community as well. Some scientists eschewed the idea of a publicly subsidized research agency, fearful that it would jeopardize the independence of researchers. University scientists argued as well about including the social sciences. To some supporters of pure or basic research, the social sciences should be excluded.

Vannevar Bush outlined his rationale for a national research agency in 1945; the NSF was not established until 1950. During the intervening years debates swirled around the appropriate mission for such an agency as well as the control of it. The final organization emerged from compromises—within and among political actors, scientists, and other assorted groups. The new organization endorsed the emphasis on basic research, with a charter that allowed it to stake claim to a public mission, as needed. The mission presented in the founding charter: To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense. Although the health and defense of the nation have never been central to NSF, the charter aligns NSF with the interests of the nation—and makes it accountable to the general populace.

Navigating standards of accountability for federal agencies

Periodically, developments have prompted NSF to prominently feature its accountability to the public. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993 is illustrative. Through this act, Congress required for the first time that federal agencies set goals and measures to assess performance. Congress modified the act in 2011 but retained the requirements for agencies to outline their objectives in strategic plans and to seek input from both Congress and the wider public.

“Congress influenced agency accountability long before it passed laws setting requirements for assessing progress.”

As the story on the beginnings of NSF demonstrates, Congress influenced agency accountability long before it passed laws setting requirements for assessing progress. In fact, before the passage of GPRA, Congress had enacted legislation that shifted significant control over federal budgets from the executive to the legislative branch. The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act (1974) set up for the first time Congress-wide processes and timetables for the federal budget. It created priorities at the federal level and established revenue and spending caps. Until the passage of this act, assorted congressional committees had acted within their designated spheres.

The very thoughtful piece in this discussion series from Wolfgang Rohe helps explain the conditions prompting the drive toward greater congressional oversight of federal agencies—including agencies supporting research. Among the conditions: the explosive growth in demands on and sizes of federal budgets. The NSF began as a small agency, with a budget in 1951 of 225 million dollars. It experienced significant growth in 1957, as the nation entered the space race with Russia, and this increased support generally continued over the years. Other parts of the federal budget grew as well, spurring efforts by Congress to curb spending. The Budget Control Act of 2013 represents a recent example. The act set automatic spending cuts for nearly all of the federal agencies. Not only did the cuts restrict growth for research funding, but the requirements for mandatory programs—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—constrained the options available for the discretionary part of the budget. It is the discretionary budget in which research funding is found. Pressures against rapid growth in the federal budget—and often for significant reductions—influence the role that the science community can play in determining priorities. As Rohe points out, present-day concerns about federal expenditures make it unlikely that expectations for increased accountability to the public will subside in the near term.

Balancing accountability and autonomy today

The NSF has taken account of political realities in two significant ways. The first involves modifications of its merit review criteria—the changes generally have aimed to highlight dedication to public accountability. The second concerns the creation of a Transparency and Accountability Initiative. From 1981 to 1996 all proposals were evaluated against four criteria: (1) research performance competence; (2) intrinsic merit of the research; (3) utility or relevance of the research; and (4) the effect of the research on the infrastructure of science and engineering. By 1996, NSF had faced more and more directives calling for it to connect its investments to the social good. It was to do so while preserving a system for selecting excellent work from a rich and diverse portfolio. The result: the collapsing of the four criteria into two—intellectual merit and broader impacts. The Foundation points to the latter as evidence of its responsibility beyond the population of researchers.

The Transparency and Accountability Initiative speaks to the public role of NSF even more directly. That initiative takes the NSF mission statement as its starting point, asserting that, from its origins, NSF has sought to promote the national interest by advancing first-rate science. Central to the initiative are activities intended to fortify and make more visible NSF’s enactment of the mission. The key actions taken thus far center on titles and abstracts for funded awards. The titles and abstracts are to convey clearly and to a wide audience the essence of the planned activity and its potential contribution to the national interest. No longer are the titles and abstracts to be directed to a scientific audience. To reinforce the position, the Foundation now requires that abstracts begin with a nontechnical description of the award, written for the layperson and justifying the expenditures of federal funds. In contrast to the earlier arrangement, the technical description must now follow the nontechnical one.

Adapting to a multifaceted accountability

With the initiative in mind, we can consider two questions Lisa Anderson has raised in her response to this series: Accountability to whom? Accountability for what? Her insights and the record for NSF imply that accountability is unlikely to be a static concept, invariant across time and setting. In a complex society, attempts to define and pursue accountability in the public interest can take different routes.

“Certain concepts assumed to be shared—the “national interest,” for example—can in reality be contested.”

Even the same words can be interpreted differently. The report from Vannevar Bush emphasized science as the new frontier. To scientists who saw the formulation as propelling the search for unexplored ideas, the slogan was inspiring. But people who connected it with the New Deal, a development they had opposed, found the idea distasteful. Autonomy, too, may be multifaceted and evident to varying degrees. As an example: peer review might provide a degree of latitude to the community of researchers but within boundaries set elsewhere. Certain concepts assumed to be shared—the “national interest,” for example—can in reality be contested.

Rohe has summoned social scientists “to analyze possible functional relationships between science and society to create a broad picture of what impact is all about.” In doing so, we should look at the past critically, and neither regard communities of scientists as solidified nor assume that autonomy and accountability are unambiguous ideas.

The analyses would not regard scientists as passive forces, readily acquiescing to external actors. As an illustration, NSF won approval from the White House and Congress for its distinctive approach to GPRA. The organization contended that highly quantitative measures fit imperfectly a system centered on discovery-driven research. It argued that more qualitative measures were appropriate for the kind of research and the public mission of the organization. Among the measures it adopted: making connections between discoveries and their use in service to society. More broadly, social science might contribute quite productively to the quest for autonomy and accountability by placing that quest in context, examining efforts made within communities of scientists, relating those efforts to larger forces, and treating autonomy and accountability as multifaceted.


Information on the beginnings of the National Science Foundation comes primarily from J. Merton England, A Patron for Pure Science
(Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, 1982).